A Blow to Biomass

Massachusetts’ final RPS regulations could quash biomass energy in the state
By Lisa Gibson | May 22, 2012

On April 27, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources released its months-overdue proposed final regulations for the qualification of woody biomass under the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS). Massachusetts biomass developers and foresters alike have expressed concern that the regulations could effectively kill the state’s biomass industry.

“While we have no doubt that the Department of Energy Resources intended to protect the state’s and region’s forests with these rules, they are not based on sound science and, in reality, will have the opposite effect,” says Bob Cleaves, president and CEO of the Biomass Power Association.

Among a number of changes from the draft regulations filed in May 2011, is an increase in the minimum efficiency mandate from 40 to 50 percent. Now, biomass plants will receive half a renewable energy credit (REC) upon reaching 50 percent efficiency, and one full credit beginning at 60 percent. “This provision fundamentally will shift biomass development from power-only generation units typically operating at efficiencies around 25 percent,” the DOER writes in its summary of changes.
Many developers in Massachusetts have been waiting for the regulations before finalizing project plans. “They don’t make it easy in Massachusetts,” says John Bos, of Russell Biomass LLC, which has held development of its 50 MW biomass power plant in Russell, Mass., in the midst of regulation uncertainty.

The DOER also made changes to the regulations in the areas of carbon accounting, biomass fuel certificates and certificate registry, annual compliance and provisions for under-compliance, treatment of previously qualified biomass units, and eligible forest biomass and residue retention.

“The administrative requirements for documenting fuel sources and verifying qualification will greatly burden small biomass facilities, raising a question as to whether they can or will comply,” says Peter Bos, developer for Russell Biomass. “The further delay in enacting the final regulations serves to delay and likely kill all biomass projects.” Adjacent state biomass projects will use Massachusetts wood for fuel, he adds, and are not subject to the forestry requirements in the DOER regulations.
“The main or overarching constraint to any biomass development is not even in the biomass regulations,” Bos emphasizes. “It is the inability of any biomass plant to compete with wind for a power purchase agreement from an electric utility.”

The regulation change, following decades of subsidizing biomass power, came swiftly after the infamous Manomet study, which reported woody biomass releases more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than some fossil fuels. Despite several reports challenging the findings for numerous reasons, Massachusetts has continued with its goal of prompt policy change.

“As we have pointed out repeatedly, the Manomet study upon which these regulations are based did not explore the carbon accounting of energy using waste wood—the fuel used by the vast majority of biomass facilities,” Cleaves says. “More important, the use of waste wood by the biomass industry actually promotes forest health by removing the dead, rotting material. This allows new growth to replace it and, in the process, absorb more carbon. If forests remain at constant levels or increase, then the net effect is that carbon that is being removed is being reabsorbed, and indeed is better than ‘carbon neutral.’”

A comment period on the proposed final regulations is open from May 19 to June 18. A link to the full regulations and information for submitting comments can be found here:
“If the true objective here is to reduce the use of fossil fuels in favor of homegrown, alternative energy sources—thereby reducing the carbon in our atmosphere—then Massachusetts is making a grave error,” Cleaves adds.

—Lisa Gibson


5 Responses

  1. Ryan



    John, you should try to digest what I write before responding. I argue in favor of combined heat and power biomass. That is the efficient technology our taxes should be supporting, not outdated, power-only biomass that operates at 25% efficiency. NASA didn't send anyone to space in a fuel-guzzling craft, and all energy subsidies should similarly be pushing our most cutting edge technology. All of those wind subsidies you mentioned are going toward highly efficient turbines. The same goes for solar. I am all for the utilization of waste wood, but taxpayers should be getting 60% fuel efficiency from their investment, not 25%. And when I speak of profit-seeking, I look squarely at the developers of inefficient facilities. Biomass deserves support, but do it right. Don't squander our limited resources ($ and waste wood) on inefficient systems. We're better than that. And I am still waiting for you to explain which issue or issues I am not up to speed on because you failed to address any of my points.

  2. Joe Zorzin



    OK, everybody- let's do thermal, so--- are the powers that be going to let this happen? By that I mean the state and firms like Russell biomass. John? If not, why not? JZ MA LIC.FORESTER #261

  3. Ryan



    Lisa, how are people supposed to take you, Bob and your group seriously when you write with such obvious bias? You're taking a government handout and then complaining that taxpayers want a more efficient product? You say these new standards will kill power-only generation; why is that a problem? Why would taxpayers ever subsidize another power plant that operates at 25% efficiency when we can build combined heat & power facilities that easily reach the highest efficiency standards? The fact that you and your organization cling to outdated, inefficient technologies is deplorable. Greater profits trump everything else, right?

  4. John Bos



    Ryan is not up to speed on several issues. The new Massachusetts regulations call for a minimum of 60% efficiency from small and large biomass facilities in order to qualify for half of a Renewable Energy Credit. This can only be achieved by building a thermal biomass plant (Combined Heat and Power). All energy technologies are being subsidized in one way or the other with fossil fuels STILL receiving the most federal support. In the renewable energy field wind is currently at the head of the class with respect to state and federal subsidies. Government has traditionally subsidized new technologies which might have otherwise never come to life. Witness the billions spent on space technology which is now benefiting private sector space travel. Finally, we at Russell Biomass believe that the state is missing the environmental benefits of using clean waste wood as biofuel. While the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences analyzed the GHG impacts and impact upon forestland resulting from harvesting tress to fuel large scale biomass it did not, nor was it charged, with analyzing the GHG impacts (benefits) of using waste wood. In fact, the Manomet study stated that biomass power fueled by waste wood could result in GHG impacts better than natural gas. Finally, a word about Ryan's comment about "greater profits" trumping everything else. Is he talking about Enron with its enormous subsidies? Or a development team comprised of three foresters and two engineers which describes the Russell Biomass partners. If private enterprise should not be allowed to build energy facilities, who would do it? The government?

  5. Mike Leonard, Consulting Forester



    The infamous "Manomet Biomass Study" has never been peer reviewed and should be discarded as well as all of MA DOER's proposed job killing regulations. Clean renewable biomass will always be Made in America by American Workers unlike the giant bird shredding wind turbines and ugly solar "farms" which destroy mountain tops and forests and are imported from China with our ratepayer and tax dollars. That's what I call economic treason. No other state in the country is considering such job killing regulations. They make no sense.


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